Noah Baumbach returns to his favourite topic of the dysfunctional family in this very taut and thoroughly painful follow-up to The Squid and the Whale. It centres around the wedding of Pauline (Jason Leigh) and Malcolm (Black), and the visit of Pauline's estranged sister Margot (Kidman) and her son Claude (Pais), just before the big day. The film ends up playing out a massive series of unnecessarily painful engagements between some truly dislikeable characters who are harbouring deep, but nonetheless obvious psychological flaws.
Margot is a self-loathing and generally loathsome short-story writer who damns her sister's relationship from the start. Pauline remains in Margot's shadow and refuses to see success as the centre of life. This tension plays out in a series of admittedly sensitive and emotionally provocative scenes, but nonetheless fails to engage the viewer — primarily because after all the flaws and the symbols of a painful past are conveyed, we are left with very few positive aspects within the characters from which to draw hope. The relationship between Margot and her son provides momentary glimpses of real affection, but even this receives the roughshod psychoanalytic treatment when a malicious interviewer posits that a character in Margot's stories — an overbearing father who at once clings to and resents his children — is based on herself. The kids themselves go a long way to providing an escape from the tortuous anxieties in their naive innocence, but this too is violated by Baumbach's efforts to present almost every element of his tale with the pointless sexual undertones unfortunately innate in these kind of overviews of family dysfuntion and discussions of development from childhood to adulthood.
The casting itself is superb, and none of the actors disappoints — even Black does admirably well in his role as Pauline's depressed husband-to-be, shedding the exuberant comic style usually applied to his standard "oafish" roles for a far more understated performance that fits the tone of the film perfectly. In fact, all of the actors offer performances that are sufficiently sincere to flatter and enhance Baumbach's handheld camera style, which accentuates the awkward intimacy permeating the tale. Kidman's cold aloofness and piercing gaze, perfected in many a Hollywood jaunt, are put to good use in the perpetually scathing approach of Margot, and Jason Leigh is spot on as her airy, spaced-out but no less emotionally damaged sister Pauline. The quirkiness Baumbach has cultivated so well in collaborations with Wes Anderson (particularly in The Life Aquatic) is in little evidence here, surfacing only in intermittent incidents designed as allegory for broader personality traits (or more often flaws) — for example, Margot getting stuck up a tree or a dead rat in the bottom of a swimming pool, which add visual moments of enlightenment to a dialogue-driven plot but are far less inspiring than the amusing and surreal episodes coaxed out in tandem with Anderson. After The Darjeeling Limited and this, perhaps both filmmakers need their collaboration in the forthcoming Fantastic Mr Fox to rediscover that great balance they found together.
In this film we are most likely seeing Baumbach speak most clearly with his own voice, refined from his previous features. As in The Squid and The Whale, this film broadly translates as an interesting depiction of a microcosm of family life gone sour, depicted through a series of acerbic exchanges, painful character insights and psycholanalytic moments, interspersed with quirky visual allegory. In my view it's not a bad film, it's a relatively clear vision being realised on screen in an accomplished way. However, despite some great performances, it really doesn't generate enough character empathy to engage a more casual viewer, with the result that it's just too uncomfortable and detached, and too focused on its subject matter to really be enjoyable to watch.
SECOND OPINION | Stuart O'Connor * Here comes yet another nail in the coffin of Nicole Kidman's career. I mean, really — after The Stepford Wives, Bewitched, The Invasion and now this, she'll be lucky to be cast in a commercial for some French perfume. Anyway, she only got a Hollywood career by marrying that weird little scientologist bloke (and that's all I'll say about Tom; I can already smell his scumsucking, bottom-feeding lawyers circling). To be fair, she was OK in The Golden Compass, but although the critics mostly liked it, that film hardly set the box office alight. Let's hope she doesn't jinx Baz Lurhmann's Australia, or else she'll take him and Hugh Jackman down with her.
Baumbach's previous film, The Squid and The Whale, was clever, funny and subtle — superb all round. In Margot's Wedding, the whale is played by a blubbering Jack Black — who actually has, can you believe it, a nude scene. Now, I for one don't want to see Jack Black naked. Really, I don't. Jessica Alba, Eva Green, Scarlett Johansson or Amy Adams? Yes. Please. But never Jack Black. Believe me, it's not a pretty sight. I had to soak my eyeballs in bleach for 8 hours after the screening just to rid them of the image. And they still hurt. As for the rest of the cast, they should all go and stand in the corner until they learn to make better career decisions, or find themselves smarter agents. The only one who survives this with his dignity intact is John Turturro, and that's only because he's in it for just five minutes. In fact, when his character left to go back to Vermont, I really, really wanted to go with him. You will too if you're silly enough to pay to see this painful, depressing mess. Avoid it, and instead soak your eyeballs in bleach — it's cheaper, and less painful.